Andy Burnham: Why is Jeremy Hunt supporting a lifetime ban on gay men giving blood in Northern Ireland?

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham has called on UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to explain his position on gay men donating blood in Northern Ireland.

It was revealed in January that the UK Department of Health had lodged an appeal against a 2013 court ruling requiring Mr Hunt to decide if Northern Ireland should continue with its lifetime ban on gay men giving blood.

Mr Burnham, who served as Labour’s health secretary under Gordon Brown, told the BBC it was “surprising that Jeremy Hunt had decided to appeal this court ruling and he now needs to provide a full explanation”.

“Northern Ireland receives blood from across the rest of the UK where gay men have been donors since 2011,” said the Labour MP.

“This is also a matter of equality, and gay men in Northern Ireland should have the same rights to help others by donating their blood as gay men in England, Scotland and Wales.”

In 2011, England, Wales and Scotland introduced a one-year deferral for gay and bisexual men who wish to donate blood.

They can donate – providing they refrain from having sex with men for 12 months or longer.

However, Northern Ireland Health Minister Poots, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and known his anti-gay views, decided to retain the lifetime ban in Northern Ireland, despite widespread criticism from health experts, fellow politicians, and LGBT campaigners.

In October 2013, the High Court in Belfast ruled Mr Poots did not have the power to maintain the ban and declared that he broke the ministerial code in failing to refer the matter to the Stormont Assembly.

DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said the ruling had ramifications for the Stormont Executive and whole the process of devolution.

Conceding this point, the UK Department of Health said in November last year that “in England, we have made a different decision on the actual issue. In considering any health policy issue that affects all countries in the UK, we will focus on the implications for devolution.”

Sinn Fein MLA Caitriona Ruane said she felt disappointed by the approach of Mr Poots and Mr Hunt.

“I’m appalled that Edwin Poots is squandering public money to defend discrimination. Look at the state of the health service, look at his lack of management, people waiting on trolleys and dying in hospitals and what he is doing is squandering public money, defending the indefensible.

“The DUP needs to look at these court cases and accept court rulings on the basis of equality, rather than their own religious or personal opinions.”

James Taylor, head of policy at UK gay rights charity Stonewall, said: “At a time when we need blood donations right across the UK, it’s unfair that gay and bisexual men in Northern Ireland are being unfairly discriminated against with a lifetime ban on donations.

“This is a policy not rooted in modern scientific evidence.”

Northern Ireland’s Rainbow Project also said it was “disappointed” by the latest developments.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson at Northern Ireland’s Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) said the ruling “potentially has wide-reaching consequences beyond the immediate subject matter of the case, and the Department of Health and Social Services has strong legal advice recommending an appeal, and accordingly it is appropriate that those arguments should be presented to the Court of Appeal.

“It would not be appropriate for the department to comment further when an appeal to the court is pending.”

In a statement, a UK Department of Health spokesperson said: “We have considered the potential implications of the judgement, both for blood donation and for devolution.

“Following legal advice, we have submitted an appeal against the ruling.”

The case is due before the court next month.